Friday, April 29, 2022

Flying the Flags for Ukraine & South Bay Chamber Music


Ukraine Benefit Concert, Temple Israel, Long Beach
South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

Cécilia Tsan.
Two cello/piano recitals were given last weekend in the South Bay area, and a joint review of both seems appropriate as each included the same single genre piece by one composer, while between them the two events encompassed another composer’s complete output in that same genre.

More importantly, however, the second concert, hosted by Temple Israel, Long Beach, was specifically organized by the cellist Cécilia Tsan as a fundraiser for Ukraine, and opened with a somber account of the Ukrainian national anthem. The donations website remains open, and can be accessed by clicking here or on the flag above. 

Timothy Durkovic
The work common to both recitals was Debussy’s Sonate pour Violoncelle et Piano, L144, and the performance by Ms. Tsan and Timothy Durkovic (piano) which formed the climax of their benefit concert was as passionately heartfelt as was her introduction to the event. The implacable determination of the Sostenuto e molto risoluto marking which heralds the sonata's Prologue was as fully realized by the players as was the capricious spontaneity of the succeeding Sérénade and linked Finale, where they negotiated all the quasi-improvisatory twists and turns of Debussy’s score with seeming effortlessness.

Claude Debussy.
This marvelous performance slightly put in the shade the very fine account of the same work that, two evenings before, had ended the first half of the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s last concert in its 2021-22 season, by Eric Byers (cello) and Steven Vanhauwaert (piano) in LA Harbor College’s concert hall. Listening to the sonata in both of these fine acoustics, it was impossible not to reflect on Debussy’s situation as he wrote it in 1915—a French patriot tormented by the war’s impact on his country, and already ill with the cancer that would kill him less than three years later amidst the German bombardment of his beloved Paris.

Eric Byers.
If (to grossly over-simplify) Ms. Tsan dwelt on the emotionally expressive aspects of Debussy’s cello writing, Mr. Byers seemed rather to relish its timbral resourcefulness—an impression perhaps enhanced by the fact that his and Mr. Vanhauwaert's performance immediately followed their account of the Three Meditations from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, the huge “theater piece for singers, players and dancers” that he composed for the inauguration of Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center in 1971.

The original production of Mass at the Kennedy Center.

Critically castigated at the time, Mass came in from the cold when it was revived during the 2018 Bernstein centenary, in particular through an acclaimed new complete recording under Marin Alsop. Though Bernstein's voluble religious questionings remain for some listeners one of the less relatable aspects of his art, these Meditations, arranged for cello and piano from the orchestral originals that form the 12th, 17th, and 25th sections of the complete Mass, certainly form a way into at least one aspect of the work.

Steven Vanhauwaert.
I have doubts that the resulting triptych adds up to a coherent whole, but Byers and Vanhauwaert were clearly committed to the Three Meditations, sparing nothing of the cello line’s fractured, angular intensity, punctuated by thunderous piano dissonances, pizzicati so intense that the strings thwacked off the cello’s fingerboard and, to open and close the last Meditation, rhythmic taps from Mr. Vanhauwaert's fingers on the piano structure to simulate the sound of bongos.

Robert Schumann.
No contrast could have been greater than the preceding item, an account of the Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, by Schumann, as forthrightly intense in the Adagio as the Allegro was fleet. Before that, their recital had opened with the gently mournful Two Pieces composed by the 15-year-old Anton Webern in 1899, his earliest work to have survived and a universe away expressively from his atonal and hyper-aphoristic Drei Kleine Stücke Op. 11 (1914)—a skillful piece of programming by Byers and Vanhauwaert to open their second half.

Anton Webern.
The three pieces contain a mere 9, 13, and 10 measures respectively and are all over in under two minutes, but the score is deluged with detailed markings—more indications as to timbre, dynamic, expression, attack, etc., than there are actual notes—and the players’ performance was a minor miracle of attentiveness to all these.

Gabriel Fauré, by
John Singer Sargent.
The first work programmed in Tsan's and Durkovic’s benefit concert, Fauré’s Élégie Op. 24, maintained the mood of grieving. Mr. Durkovic’s clear articulation of the repeated C minor chords that led into the main theme on the cello were a welcome corrective to some more histrionic and soulful interpretations, while the contrast was literally breathtaking between Ms. Tsan’s first forte statement of that theme and the mere thread of tone, virtually without vibrato, with which she articulated its immediate pianissimo restatement.

The two recitals joined hands again with the inclusion by Byers and Vanhauwaert in their SBCMS recital of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 of 1886 and—as the centerpiece of their Ukraine fundraiser—Tsan's and Durkovic's performance of his Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38, of which Brahms wrote the first two movements in 1862 (plus an Adagio which he later discarded) and then the Allegro finale three years later. 

Johannes Brahms in 1889, 
three years after the composition
of his Cello Sonata No. 2.
Tsan's and Durkovic’s account avoided the pitfall of overdoing the non troppo aspect of the first sonata’s initial Allegro non troppo marking. In some performances this, together with the inclusion of the long exposition repeat, can make the first movement seem interminable, but their forward-pressing performance was rich and elegiac rather than doomily dragging, and with the omission of that repeat made the first movement more equal in scale with its two successors.

Equally well caught were the bittersweet courtliness of the Menuetto and Trio, and their immaculate ensemble in the Allegro finale’s torrential contrapuntal writing made for some edge-of-seat listening as the movement swept to its dark conclusion.

After the Debussy sonata, the brief Largo third movement of Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 65 made a touching encore and exeunt to this memorable hour of music-making in the best of causes, which so far has raised almost $15,000 for victims of the Ukraine war.

Finally, back to Byers' and Vanhauwert's South Bay Chamber Music Society recital. In complete contrast to the minor-key homogeneity of Brahms’ first cello sonata, his second sonata is far more varied in mood and texturally adventurous, with much use of cello pizzicato and tremolando effects on both instruments.

Performing the work as their final item, Byers and Vanhauwert were equally masters of the first movement’s wide-ranging drama (complete with exposition repeat), the tender processional of the Adagio affetuoso, the scherzo’s impulsive, improvisatory character, and the concise, exuberant finale. It would be difficult to imagine a finer conclusion to the SBCMS's first post-Covid season. 


Ukraine Benefit Concert, Temple Israel, Long Beach, Sunday, April 24, 2022,
3:00 p.m.
South Bay Chamber Music Society, LA Harbor College, Friday, April 22, 2022, 8:00 p.m. (repeated at the Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, Sunday, April 24, 2022, 3:00 p.m.)

Images: Cécilia Tsan: Courtesy LA Phil; Timothy Durkovic: artist website; Debussy: Piano Street; Eric Byers: artist website; Steven Vanhauwaert: artist website; Schumann, Webern, Fauré, Brahms: Wikimedia Commons.

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